Free of the burden of England’s participation, the 1994 World Cup was an opportunity to get stuck into international football in a consequence free environment. The novel backdrop of an American audience, the sun kissed stadiums and late night kick offs contributed to a hugely enjoyable tournament.
Purists may say there were better tournaments than 1994 but this World Cup had some crazy football, crazy referees and crazy Diego. It also represented a high water mark for Romania who had their very own ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’ Gheorghe Hagi.
Hagi was, as we all know, a magnificent player and it is always gratifying to see such a player excel in a World Cup, even if he did not win it. He was outstanding in the 3-2 second round win against Argentina, laying on a perfect cross for Ilie Dumitrescu and then scoring the third with a clean first time strike. Comparisons with Maradona were obvious with his low centre of gravity, close control and ability to imagine the right pass. The tragedy of that Argentina game is that Maradona had been thrown out of the squad for all those drugs he took so we never got to see him and Hagi go head to head which would have been something.
But this Romanian side was not a one man team and although he was not among them, the exploits of Hagi and his team mates fired the imagination of an English football watching public and their recently monied Premier League clubs.
When the new English league was formed in 1992 it was intended to be a platform for an all conquering England team. However, Graham Taylor was the manager of England at the time and he had done a bang up job of sucking the life out of the post Italia ‘90 squad and the enthusiasm of the English for its national team. Premier League clubs had all this Sky money, were back in European competition and wanted to pepper their squads with some global football stars. And so it was that a trio of Romanians, fresh from the bowls of America, arrived in England.
Ilie Dumitrescu and Gheorghe Gică Popescu joined Tottenham Hotspur straight after the World Cup and Dan Petrescu joined Sheffield Wednesday. Unfortunately, neither Dumitrescu or Popescu settled at White Hart Lane, adding more evidence to the argument that signing a player on the basis of their performance over a handful of games in an entirely different playing environment is not always the best transfer policy.
Dumitrescu found himself embroiled in a false prostitution scandal from that paragon of truth the now defunct News Of The World. Despite scoring four goals in eighteen games, he was shipped off on loan to Sevilla and then to West Ham where he was joined by his international team mate Florin Răducioiu. But Hammers boss Harry Redknapp, who was going through his Marco Boogers phase, wasn’t impressed and their both player’s English odyssey ended there. Dumitrescu never hit the heights of his Steaua Bucharest years where he spent the bulk of his career. He now owns an art gallery.
Gică Popescu lasted five more games than Dumitrescu and scored the only goal in a rare derby win against Arsenal in 1995. The central midfielder went on to have a very successful spells for Barcelona and Galatasaray and not such a successful spell as a tax avoider and money Launderer. He’s currently doing bird for both.
After 39 games at Sheffield Wednesday, Dan Petrescu moved to Chelsea and played 152 games as right back for the Blues. He has FA Cup, League Cup, European Cup Winners Cup and a UEFA Super Cup winners medals, all of which were won with the west London club. After spells at Bradford and Southampton he finished his career back in Romania. He is currently manager of Spartak Moscow and you imagine will manage in England at some point in the future.
That Romania ‘94 team was knocked out on penalties by a nowhere near as exciting Sweden team after a 2-2 draw. Their final hurrah was at France ‘98 where they were knocked out by Davor Šuker and Croatia in the second round. On the way they managed to stick it to England with a 2-1 win thanks to a last minute goal from Chelsea’s Dan Petrescu. Despite that Petrescu is still probably the most popular Romanian ever to live and work in England, which in the current political climate is not saying much.